Three of the biggest reasons tenth-ranked South Carolina received so much hype entering the 2011 season was quarterback Stephen Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore, and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Already a third of the way through the season Lattimore has been everything and more than most thought. Lattimore is third in nation in rushing behind Michigan's Denard Robinson and Oregon's LaMichael James with 153 yards per game and has scored eight touchdowns. He's also caught 12 passes out of the backfield for 139 yards and a touchdown.
For Garcia and Jeffery it has been a struggle early on. Naturally Jeffery's struggles are tied to the struggles Garcia, as Jeffery only has 14 catches for 246 yards and a touchdown. Garcia's struggles have been well-documented, particularly after the four interceptions in last week's 21-3 victory over Vanderbilt. Garcia has now thrown seven interceptions in four games and a seemingly potent passing team entering the season is ranked 99th in passing offense.
"When the quarterback and the offense struggles, the offensive coordinator, the quarterbacks coach, the offensive line coach, the receiver coach, we all struggle," head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "We are all a big part of whatever happens with the offense. That's why I don't think many of us were very happy the other night. Our phase of the game didn't perform well."
Entering the season on the brink of setting several school records, the expectations were high for Garcia. After being beat out for the starting job in the season opener against East Carolina, Garcia entered in the second quarter with his team trailing 17-0. Garcia led the team to a 56-37 win in the opener. From there it has been pretty much all downhill for Garcia, culminating in Saturday night's performance in which he completed just 16-of-30 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown to go with his four interceptions.
"Well, we're hoping Stephen's confidence will gain as the week progresses," Spurrier said. "Obviously, at the end of the last game, it wasn't very good. But we're going to start Stephen, Stephen's going to start the game and hopefully finish the game. We're going to try to put him in position where he can play well."
This week the Gamecocks will face an Auburn team that has struggled to say the least defensively this season. The Tigers are giving up 478 yards per game and have been equally bad against the run and pass. Auburn is giving up 227 yards per game on the ground and 251 through the air and opponents are averaging 31 points per game.
"They've struggled, there's no question about that," Spurrier said. "I think they returned one or two starters on defense, maybe three, I'm not sure. They've proven they can turn it around. Our defense was struggling until last week. We were struggling, and then last week we put it together. So anyway, who knows how our offense is going to play against them. But it's true that they have not played very well defensively. And they know that, and I'm sure they're going to try and get better."
Auburn has particularly had problems getting their opponent off the field, something the Gamecocks are all too familiar with. Auburn's opponents have converted 59% of their third downs. After a solid defensive effort last week, Carolina's opponents are converting at a 41% clip while the Gamecock offense is now converting 46% of their third downs.
"Clemson, against Auburn, made 14 of 18 third downs," Spurrier said. "That's making some third downs there. Those two downs, Auburn stopped them, stopped them a bunch, they made all those third downs. If they don't make those, it's a lot closer game. It wasn't like they just went up and down the field. They made all those third downs. When you can make a bunch of third downs, it's really helpful."
Of course Carolina will try and give Auburn a steady dose of Lattimore, and if the Tigers tackle like they did against Clemson, Lattimore will have a big day. Auburn will likely take a page out of the Vanderbilt book and stack the box and force Garcia to beat them with his arm.
"Hopefully we can run some in there. But we are going to need to pass the ball better, we know that too. We are sort of seeing a style of defense the other teams are playing, get an extra guy up there, so we better start throwing the ball if we're going to have a good offense, we know that, other teams know that. They are going to stop Marcus first. That has to be the goal of every defense we play. They can't let him romp up and down the field so we know what we need to do. Can we do it is the question.
"I hope a quarterback would go out there, say, ‘I'm ready to tear ‘em up today,' instead of, ‘What am I going to do today?' We hope the entire team has confidence they can play well."
Wounded Warrior Project
For the second time since signing with Under Armour the Gamecocks will camo uniforms to honor the Wounded Warriors and following the game the jersey's will be auctioned off with all the proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior project.
"Our players will wear these jerseys this game and they'll be auctioned off so hopefully we can earn money for the Wounded Warrior project," Spurrier said. "Stephen Diaz will be our honorary captain again. He was injured in Iraq in a Humvee blast. He's doing well. He's actually a student here at South Carolina. He'll be our honorary captain this year, and hopefully it will work out we can give him a game ball."
Defense making strides
After struggling through the first three weeks of the season, the South Carolina defense was all over the field against Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith six times, held the Commodores to 77 yards of total offense, forced three turnovers, and scored another defensive touchdown.
"I hope our defense is coming around to what we thought it was going to be in the preseason," Spurrier said. "Certainly last week it was. In fact, that was the most dominating defensive performance since I've been here seven
years. If we can get close to that most of these games, we will certainly have a chance."
Three of the biggest playmakers on the defense have been Antonio Allen, Melvin Ingram, and Jadeveon Clowney. Allen leads the team with 36 tackles, two interceptions, forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles – second most in the country – and scored two touchdowns. Ingram has 15 tackles, two sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and fell on an Allen fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. He also has a special teams touchdown against Georgia for his third touchdown of the season. Clowney has certainly made his presence known in his first season in Columbia. The true freshman has 16 tackles, leads the team and is tied for sixth in the country with four sacks, and has forced three fumbles. Clowney and Allen are in a tie for fifth in the nation with three forced fumbles.
"Antonio, he and Melvin, gee, the balls are attracted to them right now," Spurrier said. "They have a knack of running to the ball. That play the other night was interesting. Clowney knocks it out, Antonio scoops it up and Melvin is chasing and he fumbles it to Melvin. The guys are getting their hands on the ball and the guys creating problems for the quarterback are the same as the Georgia game almost exactly. We've got some playmakers on defense, there is no question of that. Hopefully that will continue the rest of the year. Antonio is an excellent pass rusher also. We haven't used him that much yet but I'm sure we are going to sneak him in there a little bit occasionally."
The defensive line will get quite a test with Auburn running back Michael Dyer. Despite having already seen Georgia freshman Isaiah Crowell, Dyer is the best running back the Carolina defense has seen this year, and quite possibly could be the best the Gamecocks will see all year. Dyer has rushed for 426 yards on 62 carries and six touchdowns in four games.
"He's a good running back," Spurrier said. "He's one of the best in the conference, in the country. They are going to run him a bunch, we know that. They are going to run a lot more certainly than they did last year with Cam Newton back there. Their quarterback is not a real runner. I think he can run a little bit here and there, but Dyer is their main guy. Got to stop the run game no matter who you play."
The defense has been a big play defense to say the least. They are tied for first in the country with eight fumble recoveries, tied for sixth in turnovers with 12, and have eight sacks.
Freshman receiver Damiere Byrd will make his collegiate debut Saturday after being suspended by the NCAA for the first four games of the season due to his involvement in the S.A.M. Foundation.
"He'll suit up, and he's a true freshman and hasn't played yet, but he'll be in the mix," Spurrier said. "He'll be out there with, we play six receivers, he'll certainly be out there."
Byrd received a lot of attention throughout fall camp with his speed, getting separation from defenders and scoring on long touchdown receptions. As a freshman you have to temper expectations, but looking around at players like Sammy Watkins at Clemson, Gamecock coaches and fans will be looking forward to seeing him on the field the remainder of the season.
Wilds at running back
With the game well in hand, Brandon Wilds got his first carries as a Gamecock Saturday night against Vanderbilt and gained 22 yards on just three carries. With Shon Carson out for the season with a knee injury and Kenny Miles still nursing an injured wrist, Wilds could see some action against Auburn behind Lattimore and Eric Baker.
"Brandon's doing well," Spurrier said. "With Kenny Miles' sprained wrist, Kenny really can't even hold the ball in his right hand right now, so he's probably out another week or so. But Brandon has done very well. He may get a carry or two, screen pass here and there, or whatever. But he's done well. He's really going to be a good player for us. He's already a good player."
Rory Anderson catches two passes
Freshman tight end Rory "Buster" Anderson caught the first two passes of his career against Vanderbilt. Anderson, who has played a significant role in the blocking game through the first four games, showed that he has the ability to catch the ball as well.
"Buster's doing well," Spurrier said. "He misses a play every now and then and doesn't get the signal. We worked on that. He's not the only one that didn't get the signal the other night. So we're working on that, too. Buster is a good player. He's one of our two tight ends when we use the two tight-end formation, he and Justice. He's a true freshman from Atlanta, McEachern High School there, and I didn't know if he'd redshirt this year or what. But he's only about 220, but he can block a little bit. He's doing well."
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